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Hillsborough schools buy 8,000 Classic Learning Tests, which can now fulfill graduation requirement

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Florida's high school students can take the Classic Learning Test to fulfill graduation requirements.

The Classic Learning Test made national headlines last fall when the state approved it as a college admissions exam. It can also be used to fulfill high school graduation requirements and secure state scholarships.

Since last year, the state of Florida has expanded the use of the Classic Learning Test in public schools and universities.

Most of the scrutiny on the CLT focused on the Florida Board of Governors' decision to approve the little-known, conservative-backed test as a college entrance exam alternative to the SAT and ACT.

Critics raised questions about the exam's quality and reliability compared to the more widely accepted tests.

They also pointed to the exam's conservative support along the backdrop of a school reform movement that includes pushing for a classical education.

The state's expansion of the CLT now includes allowing high school students to use the exam to fulfill graduation requirements, as well as apply for Florida's Bright Futures scholarships.

The CLT is being presented as another opportunity for juniors and seniors who have not met graduation benchmarks either through Florida State Assessment (FSA), Florida Assessment for Student Thinking (FAST), or the Algebra 1 graduation benchmark exams.

"We still offer the SAT — the SAT is still an important push within our school district. This is just another opportunity or avenue for students to meet that graduation benchmark."

Hillsborough school superintendent Van Ayres

On Tuesday, the Hillsborough County school board approved the purchase of a batch of 8,000 CLT exams for $200,000 in an effort to make the exam more accessible for students.

Students still have the option to take the SAT and ACT as an alternative as well to graduate, pointed out Hillsborough school superintendent Van Ayres.

"We still offer the SAT — the SAT is still an important push within our school district," said Ayres, "This is just another opportunity or avenue for students to meet that graduation benchmark."

While board discussion about the CLT exam was brief, some raised concerns related to the exam's reputation and purpose.

"As you think about education and competition, I think about how we have to compete globally," said board member Nadia Combs, "To think that we are taking a test that is now just being in Florida — and it started kind of in Florida and some states — kind of concerns me."

Combs added that she supports boosting graduation rates, and that some students can benefit from an alternative test like the CLT. But, she said, schools need to think critically about why test standards are being modified.

"It's because education is underfunded," said Combs, "so we have to look at modifying tests ... to get kids across the end line."

In 2023, Classic Learning Initiatives, LLC, which developed the CLT, conducted a concordance study to measure the exam's comparability to the SAT — meaning if students do well on the CLT, they would also do well on the SAT. But the College Board criticized the study for not meeting industry standards.

The CLT is about one hour shorter than the SAT and consists of three main sections: verbal reasoning, grammar/writing, quantitative reasoning and an optional essay section. Each section contains 40 multiple choice questions.

Hillsborough piloted the CLT with a group of juniors in the fall of 2023. Of the 114 juniors who did not meet the reading graduation benchmark on the FSA, 25 passed with a comparable score on the CLT. Of 68 juniors who did not meet the math graduation benchmark, 42 met the required CLT score.

Board member Jessica Vaughn said she had questions about the success rate and differences between the CLT and other exams.

"We have concerns across the board, especially in my constituency, that as Florida changes its laws and guidelines for graduation and college admissions, does that make us less competitive?" said Vaughn.

In the end, she pointed out, state law requires the CLT to be offered as an alternative for graduation.

Tuesday's purchase of the test will make it more accessible for students who can't afford it or don't have a computer at home. The CLT is administered online and provides fee waivers for qualified students.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.